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Da Vinci's diet? Ask Leonard Beck

LEONARD N. BECK doesn't read cookbooks just for the recipes, the way you and I might. He reads between the lines.

He finds the connections between cooking and architecture, music, poetry, even tourism -- things not usually associated with eating or cooking.

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Curator of the Library of Congress's 300,000-piece Rare Books Collections, Dr. Beck is known as an expert on cookbooks. Very rare cookbooks. He is also a lecturer and writer and has authored ``Two `Loaf- Givers' or A Tour Through the Gastronomic Libraries of Katherine Golden Bitting and Elizabeth Robins Pennell.''

Beck, who worked with the military intelligence in World War II, was hired by the Library of Congress 40 years ago to handle a collection of German documents and books that arrived after the war. He later moved to the rare-books department, where he has been these last 15 years. He says his department is something like a jewelry store. ``You see but you don't touch,'' he explains. ``Some of these manuscripts are very fragile -- one from 1450.''

``Listen to this,'' he says, referring to the oldest cookbook in the collection, ``De honesta voluptate,'' written in 1475 by Bartolomeo Platina, the Vatican librarian, and dedicated to Cardinal Rovere. ``There are a dozen fish recipes in here and two dozen vegetable recipes. Leonardo da Vinci didn't eat meat. He was a vegetarian. It's all right here. If you want to know what da Vinci ate, this is the book.''

In his own book, ``Two `Loaf-givers,' '' Beck uncovers such gems as observations from Antoine Car^eme, a famous chef of the 19th century, who called pastry the most important branch of architecture. And the tale of Joseph Conrad's wife, who wrote a cookbook that caused comment, inspiring her husband to defend her with the statement that ``cookbooks are the only ones that are, from a moral point of view, above suspicion.''

Dr. Beck points out that the most important work in these two collections is the manuscript ``Libro de arte coquinaria'' of Maestro Martino, dated about 1450. It was here that Platina found the recipes he used for the first printed cookbook. ``It shows,'' says Dr. Beck, ``that there's nothing new in writing down someone else's recipes.''

Nor is it unusual for food historians to trace the social and intellectual changes involving food, but Dr. Beck, who can read manuscripts in Latin, French, Russian and German, has a special gift for interpreting factual and historical gastronomy, sometimes adding his own praise, criticism, and sense of humor.

He tells, for instance, about the works of William Kitchiner, who plowed through 250 cookbooks before he began to write his own ``Cook's Oracle''(1822), the reigning English Regency cookbook. Although commenting on Kitchiner's bombast and self-importance, Beck credits him with using precise measurements of ingredients before Fanny Farmer did.

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Beck includes a page from Dr. Kitchiner's book showing how he set a recipe to music. He took the letters used in the words ``beef'' and ``cabbage'' (from the old English dish of Bubble and Squeak) and wrote them on a musical score.

In describing Eliza Acton's ``Modern Cookery''(1845-1859), Dr. Beck says that Miss Acton was 46 when advised there was no market for poetry by maiden ladies and that she should write a good sensible cookery book.

She did. It was an instant success.

She prescribes a good table,`` so lavish indeed,'' says Beck, ``that she seems to forget she is writing in the period the economic historians call the `Hungry Forties.' Miss Acton seems to be one of the first to separate the ingredients from the recipes, and she also includes a group of recipes entitled `Foreign and Ethnic.''

Dr. Beck also explains how the French writer Curnonsky (pseudonym of Maurice-Edmond Sailland, 1872-1956) started a passion for French regional cooking by linking gastronomy and tourism in the first days of trains and automobiles.

This new demand for regional foods, which Curnonsky encouraged in his newspaper articles and other writings, was much to the advantage of the tire companies Michelin and Kleber-Colombes, who started publishing their celebrated guides to restaurants and hotels.

The Library of Congress cookbook collection, the curator says, is most extensive literary resource on gastronomy in North America. It includes two notable collections bequeathed to the library by Katherine Golden Bitting, a scientist at the Bureau of Chemistry at the Agriculture Department, and writer Elizabeth Robins Pennell.

The collection demonstrates the culinary arts as they developed in Europe from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, leading eventually to the flowering of French cuisine. The Bitting collection also has 16th-century examples of the literature of the classical agricultural writers in the original, the first recommendation for a gastronomic library, Beck suggests.

The major theme of Leonard Beck's book is the transition in cookbook authorship from men writing for male professionals in noble households to women writing for other middle-class women. Along the way he touches on the style of life of other generations and introduces personalities like Mrs. Beaton, Alexander Dumas, Brillat-Savarin, Balzac, Simenon, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Hannah Glasse.

The rich store of anecdote, and scholarship in his book is enhanced by many illustrations from great cookbooks ranging from Maestro Martino to line drawings of Car^eme's architectural pastries.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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